Saturday, 17 November 2018

Agnus Dei from Byrd 3-part Mass

Back in the 1970s when I was a student at York university, I was part of an interdenominational community — we called it the St Martin's Lane Community, because that's where we lived.

Father Fabian Cowper, Benedictine monk of Ampleforth Abbey, and the Catholic Chaplain for York University, was our chaplain. We shared daily prayer together, using the Ampleforth setting for Compline in the evening, and every Thursday we used to sing Vespers in Latin at All Saints Pavement Church.

As you know, it is important to me to keep my belongings to a minimum, but one of my absolutely treasured possessions (now owned only in electronic form), carried through the years, has been a recording three of our community members made of William Byrd's three-part Mass.

In the early 1990s, when I was writing my third novel The Long Fall, which traces the story of two men coming to terms with the profound illness and subsequent death of one of them, I listened over and over and over again to this Agnus Dei from the Byrd three-part Mass. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.

Roger Wilcock (whom I married and is the father of my children) sings the bass line; Michael Guilding sings the tenor line, and John Williams the counter tenor. Mike had an absolutely stinking cold the day they recorded the Mass, despite which he sang brilliantly — he loved that music dearly.

The picture accompanying the chant is of a stained glass panel by my daughter Alice Wilcock.

I do hope you like it. I am only just learning how to upload music to YouTube, but I have uploaded all the bits of that Mass for you to listen to.

Friday, 16 November 2018

A quiet night and a perfect end

It’s early in the morning, the houses all wrapped round in the November mist. My husband has gone out to play golf with some combination of Mike, Andy and Ed, and I’m still sitting in bed writing — 

— haven’t even brushed my hair or washed or cleaned my teeth. Though I’ve had a Frankincense pill and a cup of nettle tea.

I was thinking about prayers I knew from long ago.

The abbot gives the knock, the community rises, and Compline, the last office of the day, opens with the prayer:
May the Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end. Amen.
Then, when Compline ends, the day is over, the community enters the Great Silence, and they go their separate ways to rest.

It offers a metaphor of how a wise life aspires to end: quietly, prayerfully, recollectedly.  And there was a beautiful Buddhist word I once loved, "mindfully", though I've gone off it a bit now it's been seized by word-peddlers and made into a Thing right up there alongside aromatherapy and colouring books. But that, anyway. With reverence, chanting, silence. That was how my husband Bernard's life ended. I had a CD of sacred chant, just one chant but forty-five minutes long, that he loved and I often played. Once they set up a syringe-driver with morphine to hold his pain, he descended into a sedated state, remaining there the last few days — longer than I thought it would be, about five days. On the last morning, as his breathing began to change, I put on the CD with the sacred chant, forty-five minutes, the family gathered quietly, and he took his last breath with the very last chord of the singing. We played it again as the people gathered for his funeral. Chant is very supportive to reverence, peace and wellbeing. I recommend it. I heard of a monastic community in France who, in obedient response to Pope John 23rd's encouragement to engage with modern life and get out and mix more, cut down their hours of chanting in chapel. But they were a bit radical in their trim, more of a savage prune really, and overdid it. They had to adjust back up when the men in the community began to get sick — under-chanted!

So I was thinking about Compline and that prayer, "May the Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end," and about how it touches upon an aspect of life it's easy to lose track of in the modern world. 

If you read books on ageing, they (without exception in what I've read so far) focus on the contribution you can still make, the engagement you can still have, the things you can still do, the illnesses and ailments you can defeat. "Life in the old dog yet" kind of books. 

And the old people I have known (not all, but many) have tended to take comfort in materialism and consumerism; while the light lasts, going shopping and having cruise holidays and coach trips and days out and buying things and involving themselves in deep layers of pastry — cream teas, afternoon tea, meeting friends in a café for morning coffee. "We've retired. Hooray! Let's go out for a meal and take in some shopping." Hips replaced, false teeth in, cataracts removed, orthotics in place, hearing aids switched on, we elderly go forth, eager to take refuge in the pleasures of the flesh that still remain, with a hunger for life and a delight in living that defies the lengthening shadows and the creeping cold.

The last office of the day is Compline, and the one before it, around tea-time, is Vespers, which is a cardinal office — called so from the Latin word cardo, meaning "hinge". The other Cardinal office is Lauds — so Lauds and Vespers are the hinges that open and close the day, then Compline takes you down into silence, a model of death. And the frantic whirl of shopping and holidays, the bumper stickers joking "We're spending the kids' inheritance", the taking refuge in pastry, is the creaking hinge of a Vesper as the day draws to its close — not yet the whispering chill and the advancing dusk, but the avid desire to soak up the sun's last golden rays.

This pattern of ageing belongs to consumer society, relying heavily on the support of money and manufacturing. There's nothing wrong with it — it exudes a joyousness and zest for living that I admire even though I do not share it. But it is quintessentially modern.

When I think back to the collects of the Book of Common Prayer, I trace the heart-patterns and preoccupations of a different age.

The prayer (Trinity 4) made to "God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy," to "increase and multiply upon us thy mercy," that "thou being our ruler and our guide we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.”

The prayer (Trinity 7) that God will “increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same”.

The second collect from Evening Prayer, asking God to “give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that both our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee we being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness”.

And so many others. Prayers from the days before antibiotics and germ theory, when death took so many so young, when any position of power or acquisition of wealth brought with it the fear of intrigue and violence — everything from politicians to footpads — and when those who stepped out of line were burned alive or decapitated or hung by the neck until dead. The collects of the Book of Common Prayer are redolent with sickness, violence and death as close presences, never far away.

Again and again, Cranmer begs his Lord for rest and quietness, for the necessary peace to lead a quiet life, and the recollection to keep our eyes resolutely on heaven and our hearts held safe in truth.

The Book of Common Prayer set for Evensong every day the lovely canticle of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation . . .
This cardinal office to close the day is a different kind of hinge from the modern sort. Isn’t it?

When it comes to food, you will no doubt be acquainted with the hunger of under-nourishment. The sugar crash. The more . . . more . . . more . . . drive of refined carbohydrates. The food that makes you steadily hungrier the more you eat. And, conversely, the serenity that pervades the body once the liver is allowed to put down its toxic load and the lumen of the gut receives high quality nutrition. Real nourishment does give energy, but a quiet, steady kind, not the restless festination of the overstimulated.

I suppose, in my quest to find a way back Narnia, at the moment I’m groping through the encompassing darkness inside this wardrobe, pushing aside the enfolding furriness of so many stored coats to get to what lies beyond.

Chant, and quietness, and good nutrition, habits of recollection, silence, solitude and simplicity, will help me, I think.

May your day be blessed.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Just because this is one of my favourite songs.

You can dance to that.


When I was eighteen, I spent a while living and working with some monks in Devon.

There a Spanish priest who spoke no English taught me to milk a cow, and I learned to fill out a Post Office remittance sheet — fiendishly difficult; maths was never my strong suit.

Brother Jonathan was in charge of the enterprise, a big, heavy-built man with a luxuriant beard. He lived in an apartment above the Post Office, and the stone shed built into the back of it had been transformed into a small whitewashed chapel, furnished with low benches, sisal mats and sunshine. It opened into a little triangle of garden, where cabbages grew and my dwelling — a caravan — stood. Up the road in two cottages the various volunteers lived, and then a track led past the orchard (home to our goat) to the farm where the pigs, cows and donkey resided.

On the way to the farm, the track passed an old Methodist chapel. Brother Jonathan, not the easiest of men, had enjoyed a less than happy relationship with the local Methodists, so he said, and as the congregation dwindled the chapel steward had averred, through gritted teeth, "Over my dead body will that monk get his hands on our chapel."

You should be careful what you say about the servants of the Lord. He did die, and Jonathan did get the chapel, adding it to the straggle of buildings contributing to his vision of providing holidays for children from the inner city. In that particular building, nothing happened downstairs and we used the upper floor for amassing donations for our jumble sales, and for our stall. On Mondays we went to Bideford market to sell anything we could lay our hands on we thought might raise money.  

My job was basically to do anything that needed doing — digging a vegetable clamp to store the root veggies through the winter, making pots of paté from a carrier-bag-full of chicken livers Jonathan had got hold of from somewhere, cooking supper for whoever was living there at the time, milking the cow, and helping in the Post Office and stores. That could be something of a nightmare. I well remember the day Jonathan left me in charge of the shop, when I discovered that not only had the mice nibbled all the bars of chocolate on sale, but when I opened the till to give the old people of the village their pensions it had nothing in it but I.O.U.s from Jonathan.

On Wednesdays I spent the afternoons filling out the remittance sheet with him, sitting by the Aga in his little sitting room behind the shop.

I remember him sashaying down the 1970s open ladder stairs to fill out the form with me, singing Hey Fattie Bum Bum and wanting to know why we never sang anything like that in church. A fair question.

And as we sat by the stove chatting, Jonathan remarked that he woke much earlier in the morning that he used to do as a young man. At the time I was all of eighteen and he was forty-three, but I listened with interest as he mused on the discovery that nowadays he needed less sleep but more rest. The thought intrigued me, and I tucked it away in my mental filing cabinet. There's all kinds of stuff in that.

And it's true for most people. As you get older, you need less sleep but more rest. You get tired, your reserves run low, you cannot be bothered, you have less stamina and less resilience. On the one hand. But on the other hand, you wake by four or five in the morning, and if something troubles you then you lie awake all night, just turning it over in your mind. Well, I do anyway.

I remember when I moved to York as a nineteen-year-old, getting up at 5am so I had time to walk through the city to join the Poor Clares for early Mass in Lawrence Street, it felt almost unbelievably heroic — I had to go back to bed the minute I got home. Five o'clock!!  Ha! Nowadays I'm awake by five every day of the week.

More rest, and less sleep.

And just as your appetite for sleep diminishes, so does your appetite for food. Thirty years ago I used to look at the dinky plate of cake and sandwiches our old ladies nibbled on at chapel teas and wonder if they had a secret stash to fill up on at home. I used to get so hungry. I could polish off a big roast dinner followed by pie and ice-cream and come back for seconds. But gradually, as time has gone on, I find I want less and less. For breakfast I have some home-made carrot and apple juice and a bowl of oatmeal incorporating the fibre left from making the juice. For lunch I have a dessert plateful of something cooked, then a piece of fruit. For supper I have maybe a kale shake, or a small bowl of nuts, or some steamed greens. I'd have been ravenous if you'd fed me like that as a young woman, and lost weight like water running out of a sink when you pull the plug. My spare tyre still sits comfortably round my waist these days, though. And if I try to eat any more — like if we go out to eat at a restaurant, for example — it just makes me feel spectacularly ill.

This even applies to cups of tea. The amount of liquid in one of the big mugs from which I used to drink tea, I'd find overwhelming now. A small mug or a teacup is better. And then of course, there's the tea itself; it has to be herb tea now — I can no longer cope with regular tea, not even Earl Grey.

Less sleep, then, and less food. 

And what about sex?

Heheh. My previous marriage, short and sweet, was to Bernard. He and I got together when he was seventy-one, and he died when he was seventy-three. We had a very full and happy sexual relationship — but it was not the same as for younger people. I would say my general experience of sex in older people is that it is, in general, sweeter and more pleasurable than sex in younger life, perhaps in part because its rhythms are slower and more mellow. It is not without intensity, but physical energy does not always keep up with sexual desire, and one has to make corresponding adjustments.

I wrote an article about it for a magazine. It was called Roses In November. You can still read it online at a library, but I registered to see on what basis they gave access to it and they want to charge you $6 just to read it and $38 to buy it! Bugger that. If you want to read it, leave me your email address in a comment and I'll send it to you. Only if you do that, put your email address right at the beginning of what you say — because Google Blogger in their madness have changed their system of notification so that I can only read the whole of a long comment after I've published it. If I delete it, I can't read beyond the first few lines; and obviously you don't want your email address published. Oh, and by the way, if you are a man and I don't know you, I won't be sending you a copy of an article by me about sex: you'll just have to track it down online at the library if you want to read it. But if you are a regular reader here and I know you, by all means go ahead and ask. Just write your email address, your name, then "Roses In November" before you attempt to say anything else.

Other than that, I find my appetite for excitement is now sub-zero — I can no longer watch tense stories laden with threat on the telly; I even find driving a car quite difficult! But I never tire of the ordinary; I like my spotted hanky, the smell of woodsmoke, sunlight slanting through trees silhouetting against the wall, someone playing the harp downstairs in the evening . . . But outings are almost a thing of the past. I very occasionally go to the cinema, but I think I'd find a full-on day in London with a restaurant meal, and then on to the theatre for Shakespeare or the ballet, all a bit more than I could cope with now. A 40-minute lunchtime concert in a local venue is more like my mark.

I don't miss these things, though. I like lying awake in the early morning and pottering about while the household is asleep. I'm happy with less to eat, and I don't miss days out or holidays. I think the only thing I have given up that causes me sadness is Earl Grey tea and cake. Yes, I do miss those.

Just checking

While we're thinking about the last twenty years of a person's life and what it all means and so much that changes — I just wanted to make sure — you do know this song, yes?

I mean, it would be such a crying shame to spend all these years on planet Earth, and be born and live and die without having the chance to hear it.

This song is very definitely one of the things I came to Earth to experience. I heard it first when I was about eleven or twelve, a year or two after it was first aired. I was transfixed. Delighted. I've been listening to it ever since. Our friend Carien from the Netherlands refers to our family as Group W entirely as a result of the song.

It was a true story.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Intensification and strong elastic


My first job, at 15 years old, was on the checkouts at Sainsbury's supermarket. I went on from there to work with some nuns running a home for people with comprehensive disabilities, all having epilepsy as a common factor.

I worked in different departments there over the course of time, but mostly with the youngest children, aged between 6 or seven and about 11 or 12.

Some of them could speak, some could not, and I was interested to realise that I had to stop and think for a while before identifying who could and couldn't speak — because their personalities and communicative power were in every case so clear and intense., regardless of their powers of speech or their cognitive status.

In later years, working with people at the end of life, some of whom could no longer speak, it again struck me how clearly their personalities shone through.

Oliver Sacks wrote something that connects with this in his excellent book about Parkinsonian conditions, Awakenings.

He said:
"In answer to questions about the existence and integrity of the self in severe mental disease, I believe that though one can be 'beside oneself' or 'lose oneself' for years on end, the Self itself is still present, always present, intact, entire — however withdrawn or buried it may be. I think that all psychotic distortions and splintering of the self are relatively superficial, even though they may dominate the clinical picture. I think the ravages of physical and mental disease are both superficial; that there is something unfathomably deep beyond their reach; that this is the best and strongest thing we have; and that once upon a time this was called the soul."
In ageing, I have found in myself, and seen in others, a process of intensification, clarification, of the self becoming more and more evident even as faculties and attributes diminish.

I have noticed a rapid atrophying of the ability to comply or to pretend, in others and in myself. There's the thing we know about synapses in the ageing brain scuppering our inner editor's best efforts, but that's not quite what I mean. I'm not talking so much about a decline of inhibition, more about an intensification of core self.

In general, I prefer to comply, and I find it comforting to be accepted. Offending others creates strong anxiety in me. It takes me days and days to get over any kind of confrontation or conflict — sometimes even months and years.

So I have found very disturbing the steady decrease of my ability to simply fit in. It's not so much "won't" as "can't".

I find this particularly difficult in group situations (obviously), which in my life translates as church.

The church operates according to categories, like all institutions. In the Methodist church, I at present am categorised as a Local Preacher, and there are certain requirements made of those who are in that category. But I find as I get older that my selfhood asserts more and more strongly, in a kind of arm-wrestling contest with the expectational imperatives of social belonging. Increasingly, as I go to satisfy expectations and fulfil expectations, the counterpoint of my authentic reality constrains me like a band of strong, thick elastic: I can't do it. I can neither do nor be what the category demands of me. I can't just fit in with the institution. I need the group to express and respond to the people. I can adapt to the other people, but I now also need them to adapt to me. And the church, at the organisational level rather than the congregational level, doesn't work like that. Oh dear. There may be trouble ahead . . .  Already this year I've parted company with one Christian publishing house who required me to actively conceal truth from its readership because it ran counter to established expectations. I wouldn't, couldn't, do it.

So, intensification of self and the strongly elastic assertion of personality seems to be a characteristic of ageing. It is, I suppose, part of the pre-cursor of dying. When we arrive here at birth, we are all of a piece, our soul and body firmly integrated. But as we age, we start to climb the ladder up out of the earthly house of the body. We are coming loose, we are getting out, we are leaving. The soul, as it gradually emerges out of its context, is increasing clear to see.

It is, to me, a source of regret and embarrassment. I try to hold on, to be what others need me to be, to fulfil expectations. And I am increasingly less successful in this endeavour.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Further up the mountain


It's been a long day. Nothing unusual or strenuous, just the normal things like cooking a big pot of red cabbage in apple juice and walking up to the the post office with a parcel, making a poster for the church coffee morning featuring the band I go to sleep listening to as they practice downstairs. Ordinary and happy things, but I'm ready for the day to end.

So, continuing to think about ageing and the last section of life, I wanted to tell you about something I think of as "going further up the mountain".

I have always preferred to live quietly, but in the last few years this has developed an imperative quality. I have come to prioritise peace.  Nowadays, when trouble comes looking for me, I just up sticks and move further up the mountain.

It's meant, with sadness, severing some longstanding close relationships that were a source of significant and consistent stress. It's meant withdrawing from professional opportunities. I've closed my Facebook account and stopped watching the news. I only just manage to hang on to going to church — and I do still go because my church community has in it the gentlest, dearest people on God's earth.

Where once I'd have done battle, or struggled on, or put up with adversity, now I choose peace. Quietness. Calm.

I apply the maxim, "If in doubt, simplify," whenever I come to a crossroads or a dilemma.  

Life as I now shape it is characterised by peace more than any other thing. I treasure silence and solitude, the calm space yielded by owning few possessions (I've still got too many, I can feel it), the simplicity of ordinary daily routine.

I avoid arguments, crowds, social gatherings, traffic, interviews, complication and busyness. I go to bed early and I get up early.

"Avoid loud and aggressive persons," said Max Ehrmann; "they are vexatious to the spirit." I take his advice. I go further up the mountain.

This hunger for quietness and peace that simply cannot be ignored, I have noticed many friends who read here share in common. I have found the need for peace has increased steeply and assertively as I've grown older.

My father lived to be eighty-three, and in the last decade of his life he withdrew more and more from the world. He remained married to my mother, but stopped living with her and moved into little country cottage on his own. He occasionally took holidays in remote Norwegian fishing cabins. He had a dog whom he loved and took for long walks, and he fed the birds. He ate cheese and biscuits and fruit cake, and drank red wine or Earl Grey tea. Every day he drove (he loved his car and kept it in tip-top order) to the supermarket café where he could purchase a cheap hot meal for which someone else cooked and washed up. He enjoyed chatting to the café staff, but avoided any prolonged contact with people in general. He used to go indoors and hide if he was out in the garden and his neighbours came out.

He refused to co-operate with anything required of him. He parked on double-yellow lines (that's curbside strictly no-parking indication in the UK) outside the bank when he went to get his money out, and preferred to pay the occasional £60.00 fine incurred than do what he was told and didn't want to. He wouldn't separate his rubbish into black bin, cardboard and plastic, and in the end the council gave up pressurising him to do so, because he wouldn't.

He cut his own hair and fixed his own teeth as far as he could — when one of them fell out, he super-glued it back in. If he ever got ill he ignored it until it became a serious and acute emergency, then had the necessary surgery done and went home.

His house was always neat and tidy, almost impersonal, furnished with the greatest frugality — the things he had been given by his family — his armchair and electric fire, his telly and electric kettle, his rug — plus a few basic items like a bed, a table, a sofa, a desk.

He took an interest in current affairs, enjoyed moving his savings into different currencies in pursuit of higher interest, and he liked watching Countryfile on the telly. Politically he was staunchly Conservative, because his vote was for the kind of government he believed would leave him in peace to solve his own problems and live how he wanted to. 

Quiet, solitary, and gentle, in the last few years he came to one or two family events — the eightieth birthday party we gave him, the funeral of my previous husband, my wedding to the man I'm married to now.

He died suddenly, quietly, alone. His aorta broke, and he just stopped living. When I found him the next morning, he was neatly dressed in his pyjamas and dressing gown, lying where he had fallen onto his bed, his featured settled in their habitual primary expression, which was one of kindness.

He was a wanderer-off his whole life, travelling the world and rarely at home. Retirement in the close company of his wife and associates was too heavy a burden for him; so he just went higher up the mountain.

He was seventy-nine here.

I do believe this instinctive questing for peace and solitude is a typical feature of ageing. A hunger for simplicity.

People often make a to-do about loneliness in the elderly; but though undoubtedly some of them are lonely, they often don't seek to do anything about it. They don't want to share a house together, for example. They just want to be left in peace, living in solitude on the brink of loneliness, but prevented from falling over the edge by the administration of chatty visits that ask nothing and aren't too long. It is a form of simplification, a withdrawal from the heaviness of involvement and complication. Moving higher up the mountain.