Cathedral Close

It is eight o’clock.  From the great Gothic mass of the cathedral a tintinnabulation of bells proclaims the hour.

Skies of grey:  footsteps echo on the cobbles of the Close, and birch trees that line Cathedral Green’s flat acres of grass drip solemnly, the rain’s history whispered among their leaves. The shower has passed, they say.   Yes, but autumn remains.

The Close is wide, a mediaeval thoroughfare of heraldic grandeur beside Cathedral Green.  Birches stand like a guard of honor along one side, while little crooked shops built of tortured black timbers and white stucco bark and snap at the cathedral’s towering presence from the other.  They ogle passers-by through bottle-glass windows, do these emporia, their opened doorways lined with racks of postcards and souvenirs.  But a chill breeze plays in the alleys, and damp hangs pungently on the air.  There are few abroad today who might yield to such temptations.

I for one am in no mood to be tempted.  I walk this path each day on my way to work, and work, with the changes the last few years have wrought, is no longer the pleasure it once was.  I am a carver.  There was a time, not so long ago, when I took pride in my craftsmanship, when I was judged by the beauty of the finished piece, the quality and integrity of my art.  But this is no longer so.   Now, my day is punctuated by my manager’s repeated insistence that I finish faster, do more, simplify those details that require precious time.  Soon there will be no space for my art upon the wood; the furniture my Company makes will be faceless and bland, thrust into the world by jigs and machines that concede not a second to beauty.  Last week my lifetime’s occupation was threatened by a letter.  My ‘productivity’ was questioned.  My work rate must be ‘improved’.

This morning my wife, Renee, added her voice to the critical accord by telling me I am too timid – I should leave the Company, set up on my own.  I try to make her understand that it is not that simple, that I have no money to begin such an enterprise.  She calls me spineless.  With no bonuses to spend I know the privations of our poor condition hurt her terribly, and I understand why she strikes out.  But I hurt.  Deep inside me I hurt, and I do earnestly long for change.

There are others, though few, braving the weather this morning.  Amongst them one man stands out.  Marching towards me he is tall, with a determined stride and heavy hikers’ shoes which snatch at the cobbles.  He wears a blue jacket slightly darkened by the rain and on his back, beating against him with each step, is a red rucksack so well filled a lesser man might be borne down by its weight, but not he.   His lightly–bearded chin juts forward, his bright blue eyes stare past me undimmed by the chill, and his wide mouth is drawn back in determination.  He walks rapidly, closing the distance between us in seconds, and his very presence offends me, forcing the bitter gall of my own inadequacy up into my throat.

I am angry.  For a few delusional moments this man becomes the epitome of all I envy, all I hate; his commitment, his focused intent, his strength.  He is all that I am not and I see it in his eyes.  He knows my weakness.

Deliberately – I do it deliberately.  I step a little to one side, setting myself in this man’s path.  As we pass, I lean in.  My shoulder buffets his; his rucksack swings aside and I know the jolt must have hurt his arm at least as much as it hurt mine.   Instantly I am consumed with guilt.  My anger is vented and sorrow, apprehension, even fear take its place.  For me the encounter is over but somehow I feel his eyes on my back, demanding that I turn.

So I do.

I look around to find he has stopped.   He is looking at me with a challenge in his eyes.  I mutter an apology but he shakes his head.  The word is not enough, the offence was too calculated, too severe to be allowed to pass.  He has started walking back in my direction, his eyes never leaving mine.

Two paces away he stops to face me, and this time his expression is questioning: is this the fight I wanted?  Is this the expiation I seek?  Frightened now, for I am not a fighter by nature, I glance around in hope of escape but he moves as my eyes move, stepping before my gaze, his body wound up like a spring, his hands half-raised and spread in an unspoken invitation.

“Sorry – I’m sorry.”  I repeat those meaningless words.  Really, my mind is travelling:  why am I here?  How have I got myself into this position, a poor, frustrated loser on a cold autumn morning, marching forward into nothing when I know – my very soul knows – the time for change has come.  I could, I should take Renee’s advice.  I should make my living by carving and selling my own work, I should take her away from this.

Yet here I am, and in a minute or less I am going to get floored by this powerful, righteous figure of a man who I challenged for no reason other than my own pain.

I move to resume my journey but he steps before me, cuts me off.  As I turn to retreat, he blocks me again.  Unspeaking, yet unyielding, he is too formidable for my defeated mind.  In the final humiliation that must visit all who are as cowardly as I, I drop my shoulders, feeling the tears come.   He nods, stepping towards me, that final pace.  I cringe from him, I am shaking.

But then he smiles.  He smiles and with one gentle hand he reaches out to me, gesturing with the other that I am free to pass.  Stepping aside, he takes my elbow to guide me that first step or two; then he is gone.

Renee’s face is smiling, staring down at me, and there are tears on her cheek, too.

A quiet male voice says:  “He’s back.”

Renee nods, acknowledges the voice with a sob.  Her hand finds my arm and strokes it softly.  “Thank God!”  She murmurs.

There are white walls, clacking heels; there are girls in nursing blue and the steady beep of a machine.  Tubes spring from my flesh in a dozen different directions.  The owner of the quiet male voice comes into view.  He is dark-haired, with frank brown eyes, and he seems too impossibly young to support the lab. coat he wears.

“You’ve had a cardiac arrest, Mr. Frobisher.  We thought we were going to lose you for a while.”

I feel a salt splash as Renee bends to kiss my forehead, saying:  “We have to leave you now, so you can rest.  You’re safe now.  What would I do if I lost you, my darling?”

The faces leave, the screens are drawn.  Alone, with only the beeping machine for company, I have time to think; and in that blessed peace at last I understand.

For a while I was, truly, lost.  I have been allowed back, given a second chance, but on one condition – that my life will have to change.   The bearded man who had seemed a complete stranger is no stranger to me now, though I have been more accustomed to imagine him dressed in black.

One day I will meet him again; and next time, I will know his name.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured Image: Chris Santilli from Unsplash

Boston is Silent

This morning, at an extraordinary hour in the UK, ‘Boston Calling’ fell silent.

This excellent program, looking at the world and its attitudes to American culture, has been a feature of the BBC World Service for eight years and some 400 episodes.  In the UK at least, its wisdom will be heard no more.  I have no doubt its reputation in The United States was similarly high – not least because it would have found its audience at a more wakeful hour!

A sad event, then, and one which brought to my mind another great radio milestone when the late Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letters from America’ came to an end.  Cooke was among the last of the old school of journalists, greatly respected in Washington, and I value the CD collection of his broadcasts that sits on an undershelf no more than a couple of feet from this keyboard.

Yesterday I took delivery of a new laptop.  Now this will seem to you a complete disconnect, until I tell you it follows a trend of most new machines in omitting a DVD drive.  To play my Alistair Cooke CDs I must now resort to my older laptop (which has been commandeered by the Memsa’ab, incidentally), or this PC, which is in itself what is now referred to as a ‘traditional machine’.

Museum pieces!  Or so they will become when they have served their time, and our new machines have only a card slot for s substitute.  In less than a generation, a plethora of technical innovations has come and gone, at faster and faster pace.  Old information technology is succeeded by new, and the circle of obsolescence closes in.

Exaggeration?  Who among us still owns floppy disks, tapes or cassettes, and where can you read them if you do?

1600 years ago the last of the great ancient civilizations reached a stage in its dilapidation where it withdrew from, rather than threw innovation into, the greater part of its former empire.  The Roman presence in its satellites and client kingdoms did not end dramatically with the sacking of Rome, rather it diminished, whilst retaining its exclusive influence in one key aspect of power; the written word.   Once a pillar of all Roman culture, transcription became restricted to the gospels, which were painstakingly copied by monks in their role as specialist scribes.  Their language, Latin, devolved into a preserve of the learned and a complete mystery to the common man.  

Except in the hands of a narrow elite written records almost disappeared.   Looking back upon this time we call it the Dark Age – when few were sufficiently literate or wealthy enough to have access to writing.   Only with the invention of the printing press in 1440 did the dam to that reservoir finally burst. 

Now, as we approach the end of the present cycle of civilization, as the influence of the current major powers liberalizes and begins to turn upon itself, I see troubling similarities to the plight of those abandoned in the changing fortunes of Rome.  Step by step we are turning our backs upon our most reliable method of recording knowledge and our most effective way of teaching others.   Pamphlets or books have been available to all of us constantly – easily attainable, relatively inexpensive.  But this is not certain anymore.   The printed word is under threat; fewer and fewer books find their way to press.  And those same words committed to the hard drive, to the memory card or to our tablets cannot be trusted to be readable in forty years’ time, let alone four centuries.  Recording them, transcribing from one medium to another is possible, of course, and will in all probability remain so, but their availability will diminish.  Furthermore, it places responsibility onto the shoulders of our modern ‘monks’, the specialists in the world of algorithms and code:  a new elite.

In times of change, some things must remain inviolable.  Curation of the book and the languages that free us all from the tyranny of ignorance must be entrusted to those who would spread knowledge, rather than use it as power.  

The Witchery Within

It must be something in the sky!   The mild clouds, perhaps, dove grey to break winter to us gently.   Moving fast – they have so much to bring and so little time.  Or some newly created homeland in the earth beneath, layered, filo tier upon filo tier of leaf, carpet and roof, food and bed to the millions, the small unseen.  Indoors, the spider harlot waits upon the white enamel of the bath:  advertising cheap sex for the hungry wanderer, with a price too high for most.

Walking beneath the shedding trees, shoes cloyed with mud, face refreshed by the cleansing breeze, I need no reminding that every season is a cause for celebration, autumn as much as any.  ‘The summer fair, she has grown old’ – Nature takes a broom to the detritus of another year, and that’s excuse enough.   Amid the gathering gloom of evening I glance up into the tangled black of a half-naked sycamore beside my path, then glance again.  A part of a high bough is suddenly separated and an old woman’s cackle rattles through the branches as she flits away into a distance written for her by ten thousand years of superstition.  Speaking of brooms!

For my part, I will celebrate.  For as long as men can remember, All Hallows Eve has been as close to a night of overindulgence as their village could afford, when everyone huddled together for safety, lest a passing witch should pay them too much attention.

We don’t believe in witches now, yet we dress as though we did.  It’s as well that we don’t because we loose our children onto the streets in our defiance and imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but a feast of such morsels may be all too tempting for those watching crones.  Somehow (we need not look far to discover how) the solemn authenticity of Hallowe’en has been violated and reassigned as a night of gaiety and mirth.

Like each revel of legend – like Christmas, like Easter, Hallowe’en has become a plundering ground for the Barons of Consumerism.  No festival can be a festival now without a ‘retail experience’, a market for the usurers, the vintners, the purveyors, the costumiers (I flatter them – it is an enormous stretch to hinge a far eastern sweatshop upon the title of ‘costumier’), all no more than an ‘Enter’ keystroke away.   Hallowe’en is an instant inducement to buy and then cast aside.  Few know why they celebrate, but worse, even fewer will encourage their children to enquire.  The off-the-shelf costumes that drag our beloved progeny away from their video games for a couple of hours cost no more than a few dollars, a smattering of pounds, to provide.   84% of them will be glittering in the household trash within a few days.

A sizeable proportion of those costumes, those millions of costumes, is plastic.  Masks are almost certainly plastic, as are most cheap black cloaks and other accessories.    Pumpkins will be hollowed out and their perfectly edible flesh discarded without thought for how it might be better used.

In Britain, to add further insult to our already over-stressed environment, we will celebrate a second orgy of consumption within a week by releasing plentiful quantities of low-grade explosives into the ether while we cavort around as large a bonfire as we can possibly construct.

We should not be proud.    Many thousands of tons of plastic microbeads will be generated as a result of this Hallowe’en. They will pollute our rivers and our oceans for generations to come. The food we waste is not just our food but food for the world. The smell of cordite in the morning of November 6th should be enough to remind us the air we breathe is rationed.  It does not go on forever.

One of the few redeeming features of Guy Fawkes Night in the UK was a tradition whereby children earned a few coppers by constructing an effigy supposed to be of Guido Fawkes – which they trailed around the neighborhood, knocking on doors to beg a ‘Penny for the Guy’.  This seems to have died out, now, which is a shame because for the children to make a presentable Guy effigy took imagination and effort, and their use of straw and old clothes was creative recycling.  A similar creative experience awaits in the making of Hallowe’en costumes if we are prepared to grasp it,

So in your celebrations this Hallowe’en raise a glass to those families who have joined together in creating costumes from reusable materials, rather than buying them from a rail.  Spare a thought for those whose supper tables include at least one pumpkin pie.  If you must observe Guy Fawkes Night, think a little about the distress you cause to pets (and many people) for the sake of a few expensive bangs:  take your children to an organized display.  Save yourself a fortune, and help to minimize the environmental damage as much as you can.

Here’s a post which began as one thing, then took an unexpected turn, though when you dissect the subject matter the connection is obvious, really.  The glory of autumn, or fall, is not in its colours or its earthy scents, or even in the changing of the seasons, mud beneath our feet, relief from the oven of summer: no, it is in a different kind of celebration, a celebration of perfection.  For Nature of herself exhibits, in these few months, an act of crucial balance in which everything that was brief is changed, and all that is permanent remains untouched.  She does this with the absolute reassurance of power, which at times we are so arrogant as to believe we have conquered.  We have not.

As we enjoy our festivities – as well we might, for every year gets a little harder than the one before – we would do well to remember that for every blow we strike to the planet upon which we live there is a riposte;  in the end, all our debts must be repaid.

Photo credit:  Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.